“Why would you pick a fighter’s life if you didn’t have to,” asks the old, retired ex-boxer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). He would know. The life, it ain’t easy. Yet as he stares into the eyes of Apollo Creed’s son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), somewhere inside he knows the answer. His reservations and the young man’s unbridled fighting spirit are the push-and-pull that drives this surprisingly compelling film that’s a descendant of Rocky, the highest grossing film of 1976 and winner of an Oscar for Best Picture. 40 years later a pugilist’s story is still a draw.
Sylvester Stallone has written six Rocky films. The difference with this chapter is that the idea, story and script is the brainchild of the very bright and innovative writer/director Ryan Coogler, who won a bevy of awards for his directing debut Fruitvale Station. The creation of the character Adonis “Creed” Johnson came from a very organic place for Coogler. He’d watched the entire series with his dad. His co-screenwriter Aaron Covington had a similar experience. Together they tapped into the old school formula and gave it a fresh urban twist. They’ve hatched a tale of hope filled with vibrant people, an engaging storyline and dialogue that feels real and understated.
As an orphaned kid, Adonis Johnson (Alex Henderson) gets busted for fistfights in a Los Angeles juvenile detention center almost daily. One day a mysterious woman, Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), comes to visit. He has no idea who she is. He’s shocked when he finds out she was the wife of his father Apollo Creed, and that he was the result of an affair the former boxing champ had with a younger woman. Adonis goes home with Mary Anne. He lives a privileged life in L.A., growing into a young man with opportunities and promotions aplenty at an office job. Yet something doesn’t feel right.
Against his surrogate mom’s wishes, Adonis heads to Philadelphia. He looks up a friend of his father’s, the slightly washed up ex-world heavyweight champion Rocky Balboa. Rocky has retired; he owns a restaurant. Adonis implores the ex-champ to train him in the sport of boxing. Balboa declines. Adonis wears him down. Meanwhile Adonis has moved into an apartment. He clashes with his noisy downstairs neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson, Dear White People), a singer. After a testy introduction, discord turns into infatuation, friendship and a romance.
Though he’d done some unsanctioned boxing in Tijuana, Mexico, Adonis has more ambition than technique and experience. Regardless, it isn’t long before he has his first legit fight. He wins and is outed as Creed’s son. That notoriety brings him the chance to fight an unbeaten British boxer, “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (former three-time ABA Heavyweight Champion Anthony Bellew), who is looking for an easy fight and a big payday. It will be a highly visible match in Liverpool, England. Is the novice ready for the big time?
When the footage first rolls, there is nothing out of the ordinary, just very every day stuff. That isn’t by accident. Coogler prefers stark realism over theatrics. That technique is what left audiences weeping during the final credits of Fruitvale Station. It takes time for Adonis to find his way, to sort out the anger he feels as an illegitimate son, to forge a relationship with Bianca and Rocky who become his extended family. He is vexed by the privileges of his birthright. When Mary Anne tells him “You are your father’s son,” he shudders. Later confessing, “I’m afraid of taking on the name and losing.” Bianca steers him to his destiny, “You are Apollo Creed’s son. Use the name it’s yours.”
Adonis struggles. The elder Rocky faces health issues. Bianca has her own challenges. They are misfits. Imperfect people. You stayed glued to their personal dramas. That’s the mark of intuitive screenwriting. As you get more and more involved with the characters, the charm of this movie sneaks up on you like a left hook.
Coogler knows how to get great performances out of Jordan. Jordan, an accomplished young actor, knows how to give the director every emotion he seeks. Fear. Anger. Sadness. Joy. You never question Adonis’ feelings. They are authentic. Plus Jordan has chiseled his body into a cut, muscular physique. He looks like an explosive boxer. Tessa Thompson as Bianca, the angel who pulls Adonis through to the other side, is vibrant, urban, hip and sweet. Conversely, Anthony Bellew as the flippant Conlan, is as beastly as Mike Tyson just before he bit off Evander Holyfield’s ear.
The big surprise is that Sylvester Stallone gives the most compelling and truthful performance of his career. Nothing over the top. Nothing unbelievable. Rocky has lost a couple of steps; his energy is low. He’s a senior citizen trying to get by, living vaguely off the past. No wife. Few friends. No glory. He’s wrinkled. His hair is gray. He has given in to old age. This is a marked departure from the eternally young-looking Stallone you see on the red carpet; a diehard who looks like he’s chasing his youth. Now, he’s stripped down and raw, like Mickey Rourke was as Randy “The Ram” Robinson in The Wrestler. Stallone deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Ditto Jordan for Best Actor.
Credit director of photography Maryse Alberti (The Wrestler), production designer Hannah Beachler, and costume designers Emma Potter and Antoinette Messam for making the visuals look simple and blue collar. Editors Michael P. Shawver and Claudia Castello cut the fat and leave the lean.
When you step into the theater to watch this boxing movie, don’t look for Rocky. Yes, you’ll see and feel remnants of that spirit. But Creed is its own story. Its own franchise. It’s the rebellious son that wandered out on its own. For that reason, Baby Boomers and Millennials will dig it.
Visit NNPA Syndication Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.